Getting caught reading a newspaper at work when one should be otherwise engaged would probably lead to no more than a rap on the knuckles, unless of course you were driving a bus at the time. Misusing social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, could lead to disciplinary action, and even dismissal.

In a study carried out by Peninsula, 67% of employees admitted to checking their social networking sites during work and 73% of Irish employees have admitted to bad mouthing their employers. So how can it become a disciplinary issue?

What type of posting could get me into trouble?

If the content contains a disclosure of confidential information, defamation and/or bullying and harassment of colleagues or others then you are on a sticky wicket. In UD643/2007 (An Employment Appeals Tribunal [EAT] case) a shop employee posted derogatory comments about her manager on the company Bebo site, without naming the shop or the manager. The employee was sacked, and the Tribunal subsequently found that the sanction was disproportionate. The award was limited to €4,000 on the basis that the employee had contributed significantly to her own dismissal by posting the comments on the site.

What if I post comments outside of working time?  

The same effect, I’m afraid. In UD933/2010 (an EAT case) the posting of electronic messages on an employee’s Facebook which were directed towards a member of management amounted to a breach of trust of such significance as to render untenable her employment. The Tribunal found that there was clear reputational damage to the manager concerned in this case. Issues like reputational damage and how wide the scope of the posting was, e.g. to a limited or wider audience, will be examined by a Tribunal when determining the severity of the sanction.

The above examples relate to derogatory comments directed towards members of management, but similar outcomes have been reported with regard to derogatory comments directed at fellow employees.

What is the advice on using social network such as Twitter and Facebook sites in relation to my employment?

Some employments require employees to use these sites for marketing and communication purposes and this is alright as long as the employee exercises caution and sound judgement in doing so. Avoid referring to your employment if you fall outside the above category and confine your comment to interests other than your job. The most innocent of postings can get you into trouble. For example, the posting of photographs of colleagues at Christmas parties or other social occasions without their permission may have an unexpected outcome. The chances are that some people will not want the world seeing how they behaved and will possibly make a complaint of inappropriate posting. Your innocent posting to the world at large suddenly becomes a work-related disciplinary issue.  Seek out the company internet policy and try to avoid the pitfalls that lay within. The union shop steward should have a copy of this.

Be careful with your general postings if you see yourself seeking promotion or changing jobs at some stage. Most companies now check social media pages to get a sense of the real you; of course, it’s the one you haven’t dared to put on your CV. Remember a verbal warning lasts for about twelve months on your record. Facebook lasts forever!

“The above information is just a broad outline of the law and should not be used as a legal guide in this complex area. SIPTU provides a specialist individual representation and advice service for members who find themselves in trouble with their employer. The Workers’ Rights Centre can be contacted at 1890 747 881 or through the designated union official.”